Recipe vs. Job Description
Jesus summarized the shape of the Christian life with two simple commands: ‘Love God with all your heart and all your brains and all your abilities,’ and ‘love your neighbor like your love yourself’ (Mark 12:30-31). These commands are not a recipe to follow in order to become a Christian. Instead, they are a job description to be carried out as a result of our prior trust in the saving work of Jesus.
Job description, not recipe. Got it?
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't get it. They either turn the job description into a recipe, saying that you if you want to become (or stay) a follower of Jesus, then you must "love God" and "love others." It seems innocent enough on the surface. What's wrong with telling people to love God and love other people? (It's the motto of just about every church these days, it must be right. Right?) The problem is that what we're really saying is that God won't love you back unless you love him and love other people. And that's the opposite of the good news. The gospel is not, "Love God and he will love you back." Rather, it's that God has first loved you, and calls you to recognize his love as seen in the cross of Jesus (1 John 4:9-10).
On the other hand, some people throw out the command to love others altogether, saying, "I'm a Christian whether or not I love my neighbor, so why bother to obey God in this?" These people basically rewrite the job description of what it means to be a Christian, assuming that they can define their lives instead of allowing Jesus, their Lord, to define it for them. This is not a modern problem. Even as Jesus was teaching these things, a man asked him, "Who then is my neighbor?" He wasn't asking for clarification; he was trying to avoid responsibility. He thought he could continue being a racist if he limited the term "neighbor" to mean only a select group of people.
We must avoid both of these errors, realizing that loving others is not a recipe for becoming a Christian, but it is a sign that we truly are who we claim to be. That's why the Scriptures say, "Anyone who does not love does not know God" (1 John 4:8). Loving others is the sign that we love God, but it's not the way we make God love us. He loves us because of Jesus, and if we love him, then we will love others. It's that simple.
How to Love Your Neighbor
So when we come across an article titled “Love Your Neighbor,” we ought not read it as if it were telling us, “Here’s what we must do in order for God to love us.” Instead, we should read the article as a way of showing those who are already set on loving their neighbor what that might look like in their families, churches, and communities.
That means the following list of things are examples of what it might look like to love your neighbor. The list is not complete, or permanent. Situations differ and contexts change. People may also disagree over which acts of neighbor love are the best use of time and resources. That’s understood, too. What we must not do, however, is explain away every example of neighbor love until the great commandment begins to sound like the great suggestion. God commands that we love our neighbors, and obedience in this area (as in all others) isn’t really optional.
The heart of the list that follows is simply this: Welcome others into your life in the same way that Jesus has welcomed you in the family of God, that is, without prejudice, without selfishness, and with a great deal of love. Get to know them as people, not just as possible targets for conversion. (Although, if you really do care about someone, how could you not also talk with them about Jesus?) All of this is what good friends do. They help others, care for others, and walk with others through the day-to-day difficulties of life. And they offer real hope and real forgiveness, all of which is found in Jesus.
1. Introduce yourself to those around you. This may seem like a "no-brainer," but I constantly hear of people who don't even know the people who work in the cubicle next to them, or live in the houses across the street. Even if you've been working or living in some place for years, be humble and introduce yourself to them. It doesn't take much more than, "Hi, my name is ____. I know I've lived here for years, and I should have done this before now, but I wanted to introduce myself. We should get together some time."
2. Share meals with others. Whether at work or in your home, sharing meals together is a great way to get to know other people. I mean, who doesn't like to eat? Don't be afraid to invite your friends, family, or neighbors over for dinner. If you are part of a community group, try having them over for a big night of grilling out and encourage them to invite their friends as well.
3. Volunteer in your community. What kinds of needs do the people around you have? What would be a blessing to them? How can you sacrificially give of your time, your effort, or your financial resources to help others? Are there non-profit organizations or ministries in your area that are doing excellent work? Is there a need that you can fill in ways that others can't?
4. Listen. You can't get to know other people if you do all the talking. Ask about their lives. Listen to their stories. Remember that the person you are talking to is someone that God created and Jesus died for. That's all the reason you need to care about them and share life with them.
5. Talk about Jesus. Talking with others about Jesus doesn't have to be awkward. If you have a real relationship with someone, then they'll already know that the reason you're talking with them about Jesus is precisely because you do care about them. The biggest mistake that most people make, especially in the under-30 generation, is thinking that talking about Jesus will magically get easier with time. It won't. It always takes humility and courage and love. So don't wait for the "right moment," just be honest and open and willing to talk about why Jesus matters, not just to you, but to all of life.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.